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Student Freedom Initiative Launches Inaugural Program at HBCUs Across U.S.

Inspired by Robert F. Smith’s 2019 “Morehouse Gift,’ Initiative will provide STEM majors at 9 HBCUs a more equitable alternative to fund their education

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Inspired by Robert F. Smith's 2019 'Morehouse Gift,' the Student Freedom Initiative will provide stem majors at 9 HBCUs with a more equitable alternative to fund their education.

The Student Freedom Initiative (SFI), an organization that provides science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) majors income-contingent funding in lieu of traditional college loans that have long wreaked havoc on their financial futures, launched on nine HBCU campuses across the country on September 7.

Inspired by the 2019 gift by Robert F. Smith to Morehouse College graduates that erased 100% of student loan debt for them and their parents, the Student Freedom Initiative was created by Smith to further alleviate the longstanding financial burdens Black students face, disproportionate to their white counterparts.

The inaugural list of institutions includes: Claflin University, Clark Atlanta University, Florida A&M University, Hampton University, Morehouse College, Prairie View A&M University, Tougaloo College, Tuskegee University, and Xavier University of Louisiana.

“Through the Student Freedom Initiative, we hope to give Black students access to the education they need to move forward in this economy without the burden of student loan debt stopping them from realizing their fullest potential,” said Smith who serves as chairman of the Student Freedom Initiative. “While our community continues to face inequities that too often bar young students of color from accessing quality higher education, the Student Freedom Initiative aims to empower our students with the tools they need to control their financial futures.”

On average, Black students who graduate with bachelor’s degrees accrue $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. This gap only widens across the gender divide, with Black women carrying roughly 20% more student debt than white women, owing an estimated $41,466 in undergraduate loans compared to the $33,851 white women owe.

To address the unequal financial burden faced by these students, the Student Freedom Initiative created its Student Freedom Agreement, an income-contingent funding agreement based on a ‘pay it forward’ concept, meaning payments are only made when the individual is working. SFI has begun dispersing Student Freedom Agreement funds to eligible junior and senior STEM majors attending one of its nine inaugural partner schools.

HBCU students have traditionally been more likely than non-HBCU students to turn to Parent PLUS or private loans for additional funding to cover remaining costs for their education. On average, 63% of students at HBCUs rely on Parent Plus loans. The resulting default rate is five times as high in the Black community when compared to their white counterparts, and the average debt is twice as high in the Black community as long as four years after graduation.

“We are taking a holistic approach to support and empower our students,” said Mark Brown, executive director of the Student Freedom Initiative. “Not only are we providing our students financing to pursue their education, but the Student Freedom Initiative is also providing them with career development opportunities established through partnerships with Fortune 100 companies. Eligible students receive paid internship opportunities during their college careers to prepare them for post-graduate life. We’re betting on them that given the right investment, these students will go out and do well.”

Additionally, with the help of tech partners including Cisco and AVC Technologies, the Student Freedom Initiative is visiting HBCU campuses throughout the 2021-22 academic year to provide free technology infrastructure upgrades. SFI and its partners will work directly with HBCUs to identify gaps between their existing infrastructure and the requirements identified by the Department of Education Federal Student Aid (FSA) program and install the necessary solutions to address these gaps and become cybersecure.

To date, over 22 HBCUs have signed agreements to achieve campus cyber security through infrastructure upgrades, with additional schools signing up daily.

Together with Cisco’s contribution of $150 million, the Student Freedom Initiative has received over $250 million in pledges, including a generous contribution from the Walmart Foundation as part of its first round of grants for The Walmart.org Center for Racial Equity, and support from the United Negro College Fund. In addition, the program has been acknowledged and supported by the Business Roundtable’s Racial Equity & Justice Subcommittee on Education.

About Student Freedom Initiative

The Student Freedom Initiative (SFI) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring freedom in professional and life choices for junior and senior students pursuing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) degrees. Initially focused on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), SFI is a student-centered, evidence-based, and holistic initiative featuring four transformative components: (1) an income contingent alternative to fixed payment obligations used to finance college, (2) immersive work experiences through paid internships (3) executive mentoring, tutoring, and other student services and (4) mission-critical technology infrastructure upgrades at participating HBCUs. SFI collaborates with community-based organizations, businesses and governmental entities through public-private partnerships to make sustainable, systemic changes to support the entire HBCU ecosystem.

To learn more, visit StudentFreedomInitiative.org.

For more information, contact Sakita Holley at SFI@hos-pr.com

Commentary

Let’s Talk Black Education; Governor Newsom Should Close the Vaccination Loophole for School Employees

It leaves the rest of us — including the students — without a teacher, cafeteria worker, or janitorial staff. We have to throw on five or six hats in order to ensure that our students are educated.

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Let's Talk Black Education with Margaret Fortune

The honeymoon is over in communities where the Delta variant has taken hold.

Since back-to-school, I’ve spent weeks filling in for principals, supervising children, checking children’s temperatures and providing them masks, directing traffic in the parking lot, picking up garbage, wiping down cafeteria tables — all of which are required to run safe schools in these times.

I’ve talked to other heads of schools that can say the same thing or something similar since the start of this school year. The same culprit continues to affect us all — COVID-19. However, normally we have a village to manage these tasks. Now, we don’t.

Staffing shortages are severe and there are no substitutes to be had.

Further aggravating the situation, are public health rules that require paid school staff who test negative for COVID-19 but remain unvaccinated to stay home for 10 days at a time when they are exposed to someone who tests positive.

It leaves the rest of us — including the students — without a teacher, cafeteria worker, or janitorial staff. We have to throw on five or six hats in order to ensure that our students are educated.

Necessary? Yes. Sustainable? No.

Gov. Gavin Newsom took a good first step when he required school employees to be vaccinated, but he left a gaping loophole. He allowed school staff to ‘test out’ of being vaccinated by committing to take a COVID test twice a week.  Then he put the burden on schools to become COVID testing centers overnight for the employees who refuse to get vaccinated.

The result is that these staff who refuse vaccination have to be benched for two weeks every time they get exposed to someone who tests positive for COVID-19. Imagine, if you will, being a part of a 40-person team and every week there are 10 people who are forced to quarantine for two weeks, leaving 30 team members to do the work of 40 during that first week.

That’s one person doing their job and the additional work of three coworkers. These types of staffing outages are debilitating schools across the state. There are news reports of schools having to shut down classrooms for lack of staff.

Some major school systems with the political clout have taken matters into their own hands. Los Angeles Unified, for example, has closed the loophole and is requiring all school employees to be vaccinated.  The state of California should do the same.

California has over 6 million students who can’t afford for us to agree to anything less than 100% vaccination for school employees.

Yes, the policy could force out educators who refuse to get vaccinated but, they won’t be working anyway if they get exposed to a positive case.  Essentially, the unvaccinated have become hard to employ in a school setting.  They can go out at any time and take down our schools with them.

We can’t risk that.

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Community

Opinion; How You Can Help Your Kid Readjust to In-Person Schooling

Over time, if our kids are not able to relax and de-stress, their bodies may also react with headaches, stomach aches, rapid heart rates, and an overall feeling of unwellness.   

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African American teacher assisting her students during class at elementary school and wearing face mask due to COVID-19 pandemic.

Our children are our most precious resource.  They hold in their hands the future of our community, our state, and our nation.  Likewise, we must hold them, too, under our protective guidance as we shape them into responsible and caring adults.

Now that most of our students have returned to school after an unusual, unpredictable and challenging 18 months due to COVID-19, many of our children are experiencing emotional upheavals due to – or exacerbated by — the pandemic. It is going to take some work to get children used to the stability, structure and predictability after more than a year of remote learning, disrupted schedules, isolation, little-to-no contact with peers and missed milestones.

Some of our children and their families have experienced food insecurity, income losses, illness and death due to COVID or related traumas.  These factors and many more have contributed to rising rates of depression, anxiety, hopelessness, decreased motivation, irritability, and an overall loss of learning.

As the school year begins, it is important to remember that each child is unique, and each one will experience their transition back to school differently.  According to the American Psychological Association (2021), 81 % of Gen Z teens (those between the ages of 13-17) have experienced intense stress associated with academic learning due to the COVID-19 crisis.  Rates of depression and anxiety in African American youth have increased also. Rates of suicidal ideation are climbing among Black youth as well but remains highest among LGBTQ+ youth across racial categories.  Moreover, in September 2020, over half of 11-17-year-olds reported having thoughts of suicide or self-harm.

Children experience stress differently than adults.  Usually, stress resolves itself within weeks for most youth. For others, though, the stress may turn into anxiety and influence the child’s thoughts and behavior.

Here are some things to look for:  changes in mood (irritability, hopelessness, frequent conflicts), changes in behavior (little time with friends, increase in video chatting or texting), loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities, difficulty falling or staying asleep, and/or a change in appearance (personal hygiene).

Over time, if our kids are not able to relax and de-stress, their bodies may also react with headaches, stomach aches, rapid heart rates, and an overall feeling of unwellness.

So, what can you as a parent do to help your child?  Here are some recommendations.

  1. Get organized and plan for the school day.
  2. Talk with your student about any concerns that they may have returning to school. Even if school has started, ask and listen to how the school days have progressed.
  3. Try reaching out to another parent if your child is having difficulty making new friends. Plan a playdate or hangout time.
  4. Have a consistent and reliable schedule for waking up, going to bed, and for meals.
  5. Talk to your child about what they have to look forward to whether it’s the next school day or the end of the week.
  6. Listen to your students concerns and do not dismiss what you hear. Try to validate their experiences whether you can relate to them or not.
  7. Please follow CDC guidelines as well as your school district’s policies for staying safe in order to decrease the spread of COVID and its variants.
  8. Practice meditation. Just being still and quiet for three minutes will help to protect ourselves from stress, anxiety and depression upon waking up, at dinner or before bed.

Finally, we all must recognize the additional pressure placed on many of our students during the Black Lives Matter movement.  We must continue to actively advocate, support, empathize and listen to our children as they develop tools needed to face the challenges of life today.

Remember to keep the lines of communication open and reach out to a trusted expert such as your pediatrician or family care doctor.

Some licensed psychologists, including myself, offer screenings for depression, anxiety, hopelessness, stress, etc. as well as treatment with effective tools and strategies for success are available.

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Trustees of Mills College Approve Merger with Northeastern University    

Mills College in Oakland is merging with Northeastern University following approval Tuesday by the Mills College board of trustees.

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Mills College/Britannica

Mills College in Oakland is merging with Northeastern University following approval Tuesday by the Mills College board of trustees.

The merger is subject to regulatory and other approvals but is expected to be effective July 1 of next year. Mills College, once an all-women’s college, will then be gender-inclusive and known as Mills College at Northeastern University. 

The merger was prompted by financial troubles brought on by declining student enrollment, Mills College President Beth Hillman said. She said the merger provides excitement, relief, and a sense of hope for what’s going to come next. 

“This gives us short-term solutions, medium-term solutions and long-term solutions,” Hillman said of the merger. 

Faculty and staff will as a next step work together to develop the curriculum for undergraduate and graduate studies at Mills. Mills officials said the graduate and undergraduate programs will be relevant to employers and students.

Faculty and staff will also be collaborating on the development of a Mills Institute, which will promote women’s leadership and empower first-generation students, among others. 

College officials said until the merger is complete, Mills will continue to be an accredited degree-granting college led by the current administrators. They said Mills in the coming weeks will answer questions and provide more information about the merger. 

Northeastern and Mills will be working to tend to the financial needs of Mills, which may now be able to pay more competitive wages to faculty and staff.  

Students who finish at Mills before June 30, 2022, will be granted a degree from Mills College. Students who finish after that date will receive a degree from Mills College at Northeastern University. 

Faculty members who have tenure at Mills College will have tenure with Mills College at Northeastern University and the merged institution will be offering tenure-track and adjunct faculty positions. 

Staff who are employed at Mills College on June 30, 2022, will become employees of Northeastern University following that date.  

A judge last month blocked the merger between the two institutions and granted a Mills College alum and voting member of the board of trustees Viji Nakka-Cammauf access to information on the college’s financial condition. 

At a hearing Monday, the judge ruled Mills College complied with the court’s ruling and allowed the board of trustees to vote on the proposed merger. 

“Northeastern has consistently demonstrated that it respects and values the vital contributions that Mills offers, voicing strong support for integrating the powerful mission of Mills through the Northeastern network,” Board of Trustees Chair Katie Sanborn said in a statement. “The Board sees the merger as a positive step forward that will enable the legacy of Mills to endure.”

But Alexa Pagonas, vice president of the Board of Governors for the Alumnae Association of Mills College, said not everybody is happy with the decision. 

“Many Alumnae and those in the Mills community are disheartened that the trustees decided to forego their fiduciary duties by blindly voting to approve this merger without a full and clear picture of Mills’ financial situation or a finalized term sheet as it relates to the deal,” Pagonas said. 

“Dr. Viji Nakka-Cammauf will continue to do everything in her power to uphold her fiduciary duties to the entire Mills community and protect the legacy of the College,” Pagonas said.

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